Architect vs Master Architect, View vs View: Lessons in Business & Life from the Other Side of the Glass

Northwestern University’s new business school is a quarter of a billion dollar swirl of curvy blue glass, a bold statement of modern transparency in a campus dominated by concrete, limestone and ivy-covered brick. Its light-drenched interior is a clever mix of grand public space and more intimate settings perfect for conversation. “This is a carefully wrought, spatially complex design that promises to teach future executives valuable lessons about collaboration, boldness and flexibility,” noted Pulitzer prize-winning architecture critic Blair Kamin in his review.

Indeed that is the case, although not always in ways envisioned by Kamin. Architecture critics tend to focus on aesthetics: the building as art—as sculpture—defined by clean lines, sweeping vistas, compelling colors and innovative materials. Likewise, architectural photography is notably devoid of people whose presence would only distract from the vision. Yet buildings not only create environments, they are also part of larger environments that are filled with people bustling about and sometimes with spiders hanging about.

The “Global Hub”—as the building has officially and, Kamin notes, rather portentously been dubbed—has lots of spiders hanging about.

I first noticed them while sitting in a chair on the second floor taking in the money-shot view of downtown Chicago. The floor-to-ceiling windows were flecked with bug splatter, the remains of the unfortunates who had been drawn by the building’s light in a fatal, final flight. Then I saw the spiders, dozens, perhaps hundreds of them, big and small, going about their business in one of the largest collaborative webs I had ever seen. While not uncommon on city skyscrapers, this web of webs was a web apart, a few stories high and several window panes wide. Strands of silk glistened in the glow around each of the can-lights set into a wood-paneled overhang.

Once past the ook factor (they’re on the other side of the glass), it was fascinating to watch and seemed, especially for a business school, apt. Right outside the window was a masterclass—a spider seminar—in full swing, open to any and all would-be titans of industry. Like the famous Charlotte, whose literary spinnings literally saved young Wilbur’s bacon (“Some Pig”), the Hub’s Charlottes have lessons to teach:

  • Lesson one: When faced with abundance, typically territorial and fiercely competitive predators can switch gears, becoming social collaborators to create something much bigger than any individual could possibly produce. Cooperation can pay big dividends.
  • Lesson two: Although the super-web may not fit the clean aesthetic of the architectural drawings used to sell the pricey building to alumni donors, the spiders provide a significant service free of charge: keeping the building’s prodigious bug population under control. Without the spiders, even more bug splatters would quickly accrue and soon coat the windows. On the cost side, however, the windows will need to be cleaned and webs cleared away every fall, an upkeep expense that may not have been in the original budget.
  • Lessons three, four and five are about unintended consequences, creating habitat and how nature always, always, always bats last. Northwestern has had a fraught history with the untamed. Flocks of swallows, bless’em, have now rebuilt a row of mud-and-spittle nests that had been unceremoniously scraped away last year from beneath the concrete bays of a music building. (I always thought it was rather nice that a building for musicians made its own music.) Now the birds are very actively trying to figure out how to negotiate nest construction on the glass facade of the Global Hub’s lake-facing side. The expansive overhangs are just too perfect for their needs. It may take a few years, but my money is on the swallows. Considering that the each bird can dispatch 60 bugs-an-hour—with virus-spreading mosquitoes notably on menu—they, too, just like the Charlottes, provide a valuable service.

WHEN IN TROUBLE…ITERATE!

As for unintended consequences, no one turns lemons into lemonade—or paper into honey—better than Herman Miller. Shortly after the furniture company built The Greenhouse, its state-of-art LEED Pioneer factory in Holland, Michigan (where Aeron chairs are born), paper wasps moved in. Large, aggressive colonies of paper wasps, first colonized the facade, then moved indoors. Rather than turn to pesticides, the famously environmentally progressive company turned to honeybees: 600,000 in a dozen hives. Not only did the bees make short work of the wasps, they also pollinated dozens of acres of prairie flowers covering the corporate campus. Bonus! The bees produce about five thousand pounds of honey each year, which is given away.

The Global Hub’s irresistible attraction for bugs, spiders and birds likely won’t be solved by bees, if indeed that would even be desirable. Their presence, however crawly and messy it might be, provides a humbling reminder that we live within a series of dynamic systems. An architect who focuses solely on sight lines and aesthetics has yet to learn that form doesn’t just follow function: Form enables function. Buildings are habitat in every sense and for every creature that can find a niche.

PHYSICS

Unintended consequences aren’t limited to ecological surprises. The same forms and materials that have made the interior of the Global Hub at once open, airy, light-filled and cozy have also contributed to the acoustical chaos outside. Sound waves ricochet off the hard, curved glass surfaces in unexpected and often snoop-enabling ways: Private conversations can be heard clearly from around corners. This is a building that readily gives up secrets.

At some point, someone from the music school is bound to recognize the Hub’s potential as an instrument and create a performance specifically for it. While that may not be a genius bee solution, it might just turn a flaw into a feature.

The Global Hub is hardly alone as a new building at odds with the laws of nature and physics. River Point, a sensational 52-story luxury office building downtown at the juncture of the Chicago River’s three branches, has a slightly angled arch in its glass facade designed to reflect the river. It is a mesmerizing sight to anyone walking west on the River Walk, particularly in the morning when sunlight dances and sparkles on the water. The angle on the arch also reflects light onto an identically-shaped area of manicured lawn in an elevated park just outside the building. On hot sunny days, it is enough to burn brown patches in the sensitive non-native sod.

Prairie plants anyone? Bees to follow…

— J. A. Ginsburg